Ep 49 Writers who take themselves too seriously, the decline of content mills, Hot Dudes Reading! And all your magazine writing questions answered.

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In Episode 49 of So you want to be a writer: writers who take themselves way too seriously, Frankie magazine sees its first readership drop, mapping the imaginary, the future of content mills, the book Literary Miscellany by Alex Palmer, all your freelance writing questions answered, hot dudes reading and more!

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Show Notes

10 Writers Who Took Themselves Way Too Seriously

ABCs: Frankie falls for the first time as teen titles bleed more readers

Calendars, Timelines, and Collages: Mapping the Imaginary

Content Mill Update: What Demand Studios’ Implosion Means for Writers

Literary Miscellany by Alex Palmer

lifestyle site The Carousel forges partnership with Inception Digital

Writer in Residence

We ask our very own Valerie Khoo the hard questions!

Valerie Khoo is an award-winning feature writer who has been writing for Fairfax for the past 15 years. Her articles appear regularly in The Sydney Morning Herald. She is also the author of six books. Her latest book is Power Stories: The 8 Stories You MUST Tell to Build an Epic Business.

She has worked at the three publishing giants – ACP Magazines (now Bauer Media), Pacific Magazines and EMAP – and currently works as a freelance editor for several consumer and corporate publications. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Vogue, SHE, Australian Financial Review and The Age.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@altait
@valeriekhoo

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podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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49

Transcript

Allison

And speaking of having you on the team, Valerie to point these things out, we have decided that this week’s special author interview is actually going to be a bonanza version of ‘Ask Val,’ because we have received so many questions of late and we get a lot of similar questions. They all sort of come under various categories.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Allison

We decided that we will bring all of those working writing tips into a bonanza ‘Ask Val’ session and I’m going to ask Val the questions that you guys have sent into us, or a variation of those, because as I said we do get the same questions over and over again.

 

This time around we decided to focus on the freelance writing aspect of things because we have received a lot of questions in that area.

 

Valerie, you’re in the hot seat baby.

 

Valerie

I’m ready.

 

Allison

OK, there’s going to be a million dollar question at some point, I’m sure.

 

Valerie

Does that mean I get a million dollars?

 

Allison

No, it means I get a million dollars when you get it right.

 

We’re going to start with probably the number one question that comes up over and over again and that is about pitching. Pitching is such an important part of being a freelance writer, it’s absolutely essential that you get it right. I’m going to ask you, Valerie, for your three best tips for successful pitching.

 

Valerie

Wow, OK. I think that the first thing you need to do is you need to is you have to grab the editor’s attention straightaway. That doesn’t mean you need to do a song and dance, or chuck a joke in or anything like that. You just need to get straight to the point about what your story is about, because if you take three paragraphs before you get to that, they’re going to be bored or they’re just going to think, “This person is just taking too long to get to the point, imagine what their writing is like.”

 

So, get straight to the point as to, “Hi ‘so and so,’ I’m a freelance writer. I was wondering if you might be interested in a story about ‘x’…” and make sure ‘x’ really grabs them. You’ve got to be able to say it in a sentence, and it’s got to be interesting.

 

I guess that brings me to the second part, it’s got to have that wow factor. It’s got to immediately tell the editor, “That is going to be interesting to my readership.” So often they don’t have the wow factor, they’re just like, “I’d like to write about fashion,” or, “Oh, I’d like to write about this charity.” And it’s like there’s nothing wrong with fashion, there’s nothing wrong with that particular charity, but you’ve got to tweak your pitch to make it really clear that there’s a real story there, that you have an angle, and that’s where people fall down, they don’t have an angle, they just have a wide, broad subject.

 

Allison

Let’s talk about the angle. Let’s just discuss briefly, tell me the difference between an angle and a subject.

 

Valerie

A subject is something broad — fashion, or, “I’d like to write a profile on John Smith,” without necessarily telling us why John Smith is interesting or would be of interest to the readers. A subject is just something, a broad general topic.

 

But, an angle is something that is far narrower and much more defined. I know people say, “But, I want to appeal to as many people as possible.” But, no you don’t because chances are that publication that you’re writing for does have a very defined audience and they might specifically be women between 35-45 who have a young family or who have children and who are not working at the moment, but they used to be professional people but they’re taking time out to raise a family. It might be that defined. Or it might be like Sport Fishing Australia has increased in circulation, it might be defined just to males over 35 who are really interested in sport fishing — not that I even know what sport fishing is exactly, but…

 

Allison

You won’t be writing that story probably, Val?

 

Valerie

I won’t be writing that story, no.

 

It needs to be narrowed down to something that’s not only interesting and relevant to that audience, but often it’s topical or timely in some way. There could be some kind of topical or timely hook that people know, “OK, I’m going to write about it because sport fishing season is about to start and these are the things that I need to get organized before sport fishing season,” or whatever.

 

It’s definitely about narrowing it down to something with a very clear focus.

 

Allison

You need to be succinct, you need to sell your story and you need to make sure that it’s for that particular publication — would that be fair?

 

Valerie

Yes. But, one more and that is people fall down in pitches when they do not provide enough detail and this is particularly important if the editor has never had anything to do with you before. If the editor has a long standing relationship with you and you’re friends, you can write a couple of sentences and they’ll know that you can deliver the goods because they have worked with you many times before. You can just write not very much in a pitch in that point, because you already know each other.

 

But, if you’ve never dealt with that editor before, just writing two lines, “Just wondering if you would be interested in an article in sport fishing,” is not enough. You need to actually detail, “I would interview this person… then I would interview this person… I would include these kinds of statistics… I would include this kind of case study…” because you’re essentially trying to impress… it’s like dating, isn’t it? When you’re dating you pull out the big guns when you’re first going out. You put your make up on, you brush your hair, you use your GHD straightener. After you’ve been together with someone for five years you might not pull out the GHD straightener as frequently.

 

It’s a similar concept in that — I don’t know how all of that came in to my head just then.

 

Allison

It’s nice, I like it. It’s good. By the time you’ve been five years in you’re in your pajamas, you know?

 

Valerie

Exactly, but the same applies to the relationship you have with an editor.

 

Allison

All right, well speaking of your relationship with an editor, when you’re first starting out how do you get an editor to reply? A lot of people have asked us this question, they’ve sent pitches off and then not even getting a response.

 

Valerie

Yes. Firstly, write a damn good pitch, because if your pitch is really boring or doesn’t hit the mark the editor has no compulsion to reply, has no reason to reply. And there are editors out there who do reply, but there are many editors who don’t, simply because they’re too busy or when it doesn’t quite hit the mark they just don’t know what to say. They don’t want to say, “Hey, this was really a crap pitch.” They’re not about to do that, so they feel that silence is better. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of some crap pitches, it’s very hard to know what to say.

 

If you want a response, write a really good pitch. It’s as simple as that.

 

Also think of your subject lines. People often make the mistake of just saying, “Do you take freelance articles?” in their subject lines. Or, something really vague like, “Story idea.” Full stop. Make your subject line compelling enough so that they want to open it and then make your pitch powerful and strong enough that they think it’s interesting enough to get back to you.

 

Allison

It’s all about you making them reply?

 

Valerie

Yeah — yeah, absolutely. You need to be interesting enough to reply.

 

Allison

No pressure.

 

Let’s imagine that I’m not that interesting and I have sent it off and unfortunately I’m not getting a response, I haven’t heard from my editor, how long do I wait before I can send the pitch to someone else? And if I decide that I’m going to do that should I tell the original editor that I’ve withdrawn my pitch?

 

Valerie

Well, it depends. If you feel that your pitch was actually weak and you were hoping to get some feedback on the pitch from the editor, then shame on you! It’s not the editor’s job to coach you on your pitch, it’s up to you to send them a fabulous pitch.

 

If you felt that your pitch was weak you shouldn’t have sent it in the first place.

 

Allison

Realistically most of us are not sending our pitches off thinking they’re weak.

 

Valerie

Good.

 

Allison

We’ve sent something off that we think is strong, because otherwise why would we have sent it? I think I’ve sent a strong pitch, now what do I do?

 

Valerie

Let’s assume that you sent a strong pitch that you think is good, then back yourself. Don’t give up. You need to follow up, because you may have sent it two weeks ago and just because you haven’t heard from an editor, don’t give up. She might have been sick that day, she might have been on leave, she might have had to take her mother to the doctor, or whatever, all sorts of things could have happened.

 

Follow up. Make the phone call or send the pitch again and just say, “I was just wondering if you received this and was wondering if you would be interested. I could also interview ‘so and so’…” think of another person that might be able to add value to that pitch.

 

At least back yourself up by following up with a phone number or email or both. Then see what happens, hopefully they get back to you. Sometimes it could have just been lost in their inbox and they just needed a refresher.

 

Allison

If I don’t hear again do I have to tell the original editor that I’m withdrawing my pitch before I send it off to somebody else?

 

Valerie

If you are definitely giving up, for example, which you might want to if it’s a time-sensitive pitch and you need to pitch it to somebody somewhere else if you want it to see the light of day, because you’ve timed it with an exact day, you’ve timed it with Easter, or whatever, then if you want you can send them — I would never use the word ‘withdraw’. I would say something like, “Oh, hi, just wondering if you had any further thoughts on this pitch? If not, no worries, thanks for considering it. I hope it’s OK with you, as it’s
time-sensitive I’m going to pitch it elsewhere.” Be respectful and polite.

 

I do not recommend using the world ‘withdraw.’ As an editor I have received emails that have said, “As I haven’t heard from you I’m withdrawing this pitch from your publication.” I feel like replying saying to them, “You never gave me the chance anyway. So, you’re not withdrawing.”

 

Allison

Of course you do not, Valerie, do you?

 

Valerie

No, I do not.

 

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, what do you think of the whole idea of with withdrawing a pitch?

 

Allison

I don’t think I’ve ever withdrawn a pitch in my life. I think I basically send it off, generally if I don’t hear back I follow up with a, “Just doubling checking that you received this. If you’re not interested, that’s fine. Just let me know.” Generally speaking if you do that you’ll get a ‘yes’ or a ‘sorry, it’s not for us,’ which is all you want really at that point. Then you can take your idea elsewhere.

 

I guess having worked in magazines as long as I did, I also realized that sometimes people go, “Editors are so terrible, it took them six months to get back to me.” But, sometimes the idea goes into your inbox and you think about it, it’s not right for what you’re doing and then four months later something comes up and you go, “Oh, wait a minute! There was that idea,” and then you go back to the freelancer, you know? I guess it’s always about remembering that magazine offices and newspaper offices are really, really busy places. Inbox are seriously busy places.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever withdrawn a pitch. Sometimes I’m a little bit surprised when somebody comes back to me six months later and says, “We really want to run that story, how do you feel about that?” I’m like, “Oh, OK. I had totally forgotten that.”

 

Valerie

I want to put you on the spot and ask you specifically your opinion on when writers send emails to editors saying, “As I haven’t heard back from you I’m now withdrawing this pitch from your publication.” Is that a good idea or not?

 

Allison

No, I mean I don’t think it is. But, I also think, as an editor, I don’t think it would affect me one way or the other. I think I would shrug my shoulders and go, “Yeah, whatever.” If you really feel you need to do that, then go for it. But, I don’t think it’s a necessary thing, personally.

 

Valerie

For me, as an editor, it depends on the tone of the email.

 

 

Allison

Oh, very much so.

 

Valerie

I’ve had people who I’ve shrugged my shoulders, just because, “Whatever, strange,” but, I’ve had people who are like, “I’m never going to work with you again.”

 

Allison

Oh, yeah. I think what people need to remember is that the industry is very, very small.

 

Valerie

Yep, we all talk.

 

Allison

We all talk to each other. But, not only that, but the person that you’re dealing with at ‘X’ magazine may be at ‘Y’ magazine two weeks later, in which case you’ve burnt bridges at both publications. It’s really important that you just leave stars and sunshine everywhere you go. “I’m so sorry it wasn’t for you, thanks very much.” Be polite all the time, then swear at your friends, vent, do whatever you have to do at home, but do not do it in an email to anybody, ever.

 

Valerie

Yes, or you will end up on a blog post called Ten Writers Who Took Themselves Too Seriously.

 

Allison
You will. How bad would that be?

 

Let’s move on. Your next question, Valerie, in the hot seat… this is one of my personal favorites… “I’m transitioning to be a freelancer writer and I have a day job and I have other things that I need to do, how do I find the time to write,” Valerie?

 

Valerie

You make the time.

 

Allison

Yay, good answer. That could be the million dollar question.

 

Valerie

Yes! But, you get the million dollars.

 

Allison

I do.

 

Valerie

It’s not rocket science, where else is the time going to come from?

 

I think you’ve referred to it as ‘snatched time’ as well, which is so true. You might think that you need to carve out an entire two hours or something after dinner, but if you don’t have that because you’re putting kids to bed and you’re doing this and your doing that, then you may only have 20 minutes like when you’re waiting to pick kids up from school or something like that. You need to make the time, it’s as simple as that.

 

If you say, “But there isn’t time,” then I would say, “Then you don’t want to write badly enough.”

 

Allison

It is a priority thing. I think it’s also something that people find very difficult to prioritize because it feels — I have written several blog posts on this subject, one of the things that I think that we need to realize about writing is that it’s not a convenient thing to do. It’s not convenient to anyone around you. It’s an inconvenient thing to do because you have to do it by yourself, it’s in your head and it’s all of those sorts of things. You have to prioritize it for yourself, it’s as simple as that. No one is going to prioritize it for you, you’ve got to find the place in your life where you can make it work, that’s different for everybody.

 

Valerie

Yes, absolutely. No one can prioritize it for you, that’s the key.

 

Allison

My next question, and this is something that I get asked a lot, and I’m sure that you do, “How do I get a mentor or someone experienced to get advice from?” How can I convince somebody that I want to pick their brains so they will let me?

 

Valerie

Sure. One easy thing to do first is get peers. Out of those peers a mentor may emerge, or they may put you in touch with a mentor. What I mean by ‘peers’ is other people in the same boat as you. So, other people who are writers and other people who are at a similar level to you as writers, or maybe sort of just bundling it all up something. Whether that’s a writers’ group, or certainly the graduates of Australian Writers’ Centre join the graduate groups and they network a lot online and get a lot of fantastic advice from each other online.

 

At one level mentor each other in a sense, just in terms of people who are in a similar situation to you.

 

But, then if you want a mentor that is way more experienced, then A.) still get advice from your peer group, because they may be able to recommend mentors, or put you in touch or suggest mentors that would suit you. Look for them in the first instance. Look for them in writers’ centres, in arts organizations. It really depends on the kind of mentor you want. You really need to identify the kind of person you want and go searching for that person.

 

Then you need to approach them. I don’t actually think it’s a good idea to approach someone and say, “Hi, I was just wondering if you could be my mentor?” cold, because that person may not know you or may not know you very well. It’s quite a big commitment, to mentor somebody.

 

Take baby steps. Approach someone first with a suggestion for coffee or just a suggestion of some advice, just advice over the phone on a particular issue that you might be facing at the moment, so that you can start that relationship and so that they can see that you are open to their advice, because no one wants to mentor somebody who isn’t going to actually listen to what they have to say.

 

Allison

And act on it.

 

Valerie

Yeah, and act on it. It’s important to just start with baby steps and then let the relationship evolve, because that initial chat will also help you see whether you click with that mentor, you may not like that mentor, or you may just find that they have a style that doesn’t quite suit you or whatever.

 

I think also be respectful of their time, particularly if they’re quite advanced in the industry and they’re busy people. I found quite confounding when people ask me for their advice and then tell me they’re too busy to talk to me and can they talk to me in three months’ time. I find that kind of bizarre, “OK, well, you approached me. I’m happy to give you the time, but now you’re too busy, that’s fine.”

 

Allison

That’s a bit disconcerting.

 

Valerie

It’s very strange.

 

Yeah, I think baby steps, but start with your peer group first, because you will develop wonderful connections and get great advice even just from your peer group.

 

Allison
All right, next question, “I get a bit despondent sometimes because there seems to be so many freelance writers out there, how do I get the work?”

 

Valerie

The first thing is to remind yourself there has never been a better time to be a freelance writer. There are so many more opportunities than before, so many more channels than ever before, and even though people do say that print is dying and this is in decline, the reality is there’s way, way, way more, exponentially way more content than ever before. There’s actually a lot more opportunity. Remind yourself of that.

 

Then how do you stand out, is I think what the question is.

 

Allison

Yeah, how do I get the work?

 

Valerie

Yeah, again, cream rises to the top. Be good.

 

Be good. Write pitches that sing, that are powerful, that are on point. If you’re looking for a mentor make sure you’re professional and that you don’t waste their time because then guess what? They’re going to open doors for you and refer you onto other people.

 

Be good. Be professional. Absolutely. It’s actually pretty simple.

 

Allison

Just on that subject, what if you’re sort of working as a freelancer and you want to branch out to an area of writing that you haven’t done before, be it content for websites or be it corporate writing, how do you cover up a lack of experience, because this is something that I think a lot of new freelancers struggle with. If you don’t have a long list of publishing credits, what do you do?

 

Valerie

Learn. Absolutely, if you’re not confident in a particular area you will gain confidence once you get the skills in that particular area. It can be scary when you’re used to a particular genre or type of writing and you want to move to another kind, say you want to go from fiction writing to copywriting, even though there’s some crossover they are quite beasts. It’s not just a simple matter of going, “Bang, I can just be a copywriter and I’m going to be confident at it and great at it,” if you’re unsure about that move, do a course. Or have coffee with a copywriter and pick their brain.

 

I personally think that doing a course is — obviously I’m going to say this, but I honestly believe that doing a course can fast track so many things, because you just learn it straightaway as opposed to taking years to figure it out.

 

Allison

As you say, it’s often a confidence thing.

 

Valerie

Yes!

 

Allison

In a sense of if you’ve gone and you’ve done a course, then you know what’s involved, you’ve got a very clear idea of what the other side, the client, is expecting from you. I think that’s half the battle.

 

Valerie

Absolutely. I think also the great thing about doing a course is that sometimes when you want to cross to a different type of writing or genre we think that this is what we really want, but then some writers get there and they think, “Oh my god, this is so not suited to my personality.” If they did the course first they would have had a taste of what was involved and they may be able to make that decision before getting a client and having to do a project and having to then realize this isn’t what they really wanted to do.

 

Allison

On that, just as a follow up to that question, I think this is one of the number one questions that I am asked, and I am sure for you it would be the absolute number one, “How do I get into corporate writing?” Val?

 

Valerie

Number one you need to decide if you want to get in it, because if you do decide you want to get in it, then you need to put it out there. Put it in your bio and put it in your LinkedIn profile, tell people, tell your peers. I know certainly with my peers we refer so much work to each other, or different types of writing.

 

Interestingly there’s someone who started out with us when we first starting freelancing who refused to kind of refer to any of us. She was very competitive — well, not competitive, she felt she wanted to keep it all separate, she wanted to keep it all to herself, in a sense. For whatever reason she didn’t want to refer work to us, whereas we didn’t care, we just referred work to each other all the time. There was always enough to go around. I think she felt there wasn’t enough to go around. Interestingly, she’s no longer a writer, because she could never get enough gigs.

 

Allison

Oh right. What goes around comes around.

 

Valerie

Just the importance of that peer group and networking with each other, even just informally.

 

I digress, but put it out there to your peer group. Put it out there online, or if you have a website or whatever. When you start telling people that you do corporate writing also give examples, “I write newsletters,” “I write annual reports,” “I write email marketing,” whatever it is, so that people have a clear idea that you do that, and you will be amazed at what can happen after that.

 

If you also have a relationship with an editor at a publication, put it out there to them as well, because I know I’ve got a couple of corporate writing gigs… corporations didn’t contact me directly, but they contacted my editor at the Sydney Morning Herald at the time and said to her, “Look, we know you’re in a full time gig, but can you recommend some of your freelancers to do this corporate writing gig?” But, because she knew that I did corporate writing they were referred immediately to me. But, if your editor doesn’t know that you do this as well, then they can’t refer you, right? It’s a matter of just putting it out there.

 

Allison

We have just two questions left, Valerie. You’re doing a splendid job.

 

Valerie

Thank you.

 

Allison

We’re coming up to one of the big ones, “How do I find out if a publication actually pays for content?”

 

Valerie

Well, this is not an exact science, but it can give you an idea. Firstly, look at the ads, if there’s lots of ads from lots of fancy brands, chances are they have a decent revenue stream and therefore can pay for content. If they do not, then chances are they are running on the spill of an oily rag and may not pay for content. That’s one thing, that’s not an exact science, but, you know, one way.

 

The other way, look at their guidelines, their submission guidelines. Sometimes they say whether they pay for content or not. Sometimes they don’t, but at least have a look because they might say.

 

Thirdly, ask your peers, because your peers may have written for them before or know somebody who has written for them before and will be able to give you a quick answer. I know that certainly in the graduate forums of the Australian Writers’ Centre they’re constantly asking questions like that to each other, “Does ‘so and so’ pay?” “What’s their rate? How many cents per word do they pay?”

 

Yeah, so those three ways, I reckon.

 

Allison

Last question of the day, “I’m a freelance writer, do I need a website?”

 

Valerie

Do you need a website? You know what? It’s kind of like hasn’t everyone got a website these days? Doesn’t matter whether you’re a freelance writer or not.

 

Allison

No, they don’t, Val, but that’s a nice try. Do I need an official website? Do I need a website that I’m going to put on the bottom of my pictures and send potential editors to and that sort of stuff?

 

Valerie

I don’t think you need one. I know many, many writers who don’t have one, however, it’s kind of like saying, “Do I need to wear clothes?” It’s just so easy. You don’t need a fancy website, one page website, like an about me website or whatever. Just one page so that people know how to contact you, that’s all. You don’t even need to put your stories on it. These days it’s kind of just an easy way for people to find you or contact you.

 

Allison

An online business card.

 

Valerie

Yeah, it’s really an online business card. You can get a free one from About.me or you can have your own, of course. But, that would be the reason I would have a website, not even for the marketing, not even to say, “Here’s what I’m all about,” not even to say, “Here are all of my articles,” but here’s how to find me.

 

Allison
Well, that brings us to the first round of ‘Ask Val,’ and you’ve done a splendid job. I think we’ll take you on as our carryover champion.

 

Valerie

Gee, thanks, Al.

 

Allison

I feel like we need some da-da-dah-da music, Val.


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